Leonid Meteor Shower

One of many trip reports by Alan Silverstein.
Last update: January 12, 2009

(This started out as an email to some friends...)

Dateline: Fort Collins, Colorado, 10 pm Monday night, November 16, 1998; about 14 hours before the predicted peak of the annual Leonid meteor shower. The weather forecast calls for clear skies getting cloudier by morning, with a low of 30 degrees. It's crisp outside -- both cold and clear -- but mostly cloudy at DIA, 60 miles south, says the TV weather.

"So whatcha think Megan, should we camp out in the cold and hope for a meteor storm?"

After debating warm beds versus a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, my daughter (age 15) and I agreed to go have an adventure. We bundled up, tossed more stuff in the car, and headed out of our city's cesspool of light at about 10:45 pm.

Where to go? I'd probably have just headed east or northeast and looked for a good spot. But Jenny's friend Jim had said he might go to the Owl Canyon Gliderport, about 20 miles north of my house and just west of I25. That sounded like a good idea, so we did that.

Arriving there, we found no one else. There were fuzzy clouds to the south glowing bright orange from city lights, wisps of cirrus overhead, and lots of truck noise from the nearby highway; also a cool breeze from the west. Well now there we were; was it worth staying?

After walking around a bit, I was about to get back in the car to talk with Megan when a bright meteor streaked halfway across the sky! Hmm... Megan got out too, and within perhaps three minutes there were three more! "OK, we're staying."

We laid out our sleeping gear in the lee of a building, crawled into our bags, and started watching at about 11:30 pm. I was able to keep my eyes open for an hour, Megan not so long. From 11:51 to 00:15 we counted 11 meteors between us for an average of 10 in 24 minutes. It was not a high rate storm -- but about a fourth of the meteors were spectacular! Long trails, bright green or white, leaving glowing clouds in their wake that lasted 2-3 minutes.

I dozed off and on. I'm not sure when or how long I watched during the night, perhaps another two hours total. I was warm enough, but it was really hard to keep my eyes open! However, the reward for doing so was terrific.

The rate of meteors was never very high. They seemed to come in clumps; at one point four streaks in ten seconds, then nothing for at least five minutes. But many of them were the brightest I'd ever seen! The ground around us lit up like a lightning flash numerous times. I didn't try to count them again or estimate magnitudes or any of that stuff... I just enjoyed the show whenever I could stay awake.

At one point I tried to get Megan to arouse and watch with me, but she was just too tired and cold for that nonsense!

Through the night the sky varied between crystal clear and somewhat hazy, hence rather fogged up by city lights. Many of the meteors were very low to the horizon, probably quite distant, but incredibly bright. As Leo rose from the horizon to transit, the meteor paths got shorter and maybe a little brighter. Overall the most spectacular trails occurred earlier though, when they were streaking far across the sky more parallel to the local surface.

When I woke up a little after 5 am, the stars were completely obscured by clouds. So Megan and I decided to return home to warm beds to grab some more sleep.